“Please don’t get arrested.”
You see, my mother and father aren’t familiar with the term “hacking” except in the context of the 1980s scare around it; hacking, to them, isn’t reflective of a certain subset of programming, it’s an illegal attempt to seize control of computers, information, or both.
And while I could write about “haw haw, old people don’t understand kids these days” or “my parents are so out of touch”, those missives have already been written, and have fallen on mostly deaf ears. It’s how I’d respond to a mechanic complaining that I don’t understand the inner workings of my non-existent car: “Yes, yes, your professional outrage is adorable.”
I submit that this runs a little bit deeper than that. And not just because I want people to take my professional outrage seriously.
See, here’s the thing: my parents don’t know what I do. My friends, who are mostly my age, don’t know what I do. This is not because I work for a startup and wear many hats, because I’m willing to gloss over the details and give them a handy title that sort of encompasses at least half of what I do: Developer Advocate.
They don’t know what that is.
At which point, I have to explain what Iron.io does (we offer cloud services for developers). I try to compare it to AWS as a shortcut, only to remember that they don’t know what AWS is. Yes, even the most basic knowledge that our profession takes for granted is entirely alien to them. After I’ve explained that we develop software that other developers can then use to run their code on because the Internet runs on computers called servers and those are a pain in the ass to maintain, so we do it… well, at that point they’ve already stopped listening and are just politely nodding, so I usually just sigh and say I’m an astronaut.
I know what you’re thinking right now: “Boo-hoo, you have to talk to your family and friends. Poor you.” While your sympathy is encouraging, it’s not quite what I’m driving at with this little braindump. What I’m getting at actually matters. Kind of. Well, I think it does, at least.
See, we’re accelerating as a society. Things are speeding up. Massive cultural shifts, things that happened once a generation, are now happening a few times a decade. This is actually a fun game to play; let’s take a tangent for a moment here, and see how many cultural shifts our society has weathered in the last ten years.
- Ajax. Ajax didn’t make its presence known until 2004, with the release of GMail. Yes, yes, Outlook Web Access had it in 2000, if you want to be pedantic about it, but most people count GMail as the spark that lit the forest fire. Not a widespread cultural shift? Really? The basis of applications you run in your browser wasn’t a cultural shift?
- Speaking of which, let’s throw GMail in there. Remember when you used to delete emails? Remember when people thought that Google had nothing better to do than read through your email and manually pair an ad with it? Good times. I think “cloud computing” counts as a cultural shift.
- MySpace. Founded in 2003. Probably your first “website”. Ah, I miss the time when signing up for a free account on a service qualified as having a website. I’d call this a cultural shift, mainly because it was probably the first time spending hours online was something a normal person would do.
- Facebook. Founded in 2004. A cultural shift because it marked the first time not spending hours online made you weird.
- The iPhone. Remember when our phones couldn’t access the internet? Remember when nobody said “app”? I know, isn’t it weird to think about?
- Android/the iPod Touch. I think this is around the time my boyfriend stopped calling my iPhone a baby-killer and implying that it planted me firmly in the 1%. He was kind of an asshole.
That’s certainly not all of them, and it’s probably not even the most important ones, but I’m bored now and you can just go read Wikipedia if you’re interested. I think my point has been made. If it hasn’t, try to list off the major changes in culture for the 1920s. Or 30s. Hell, try even the 60s.
So yes, we’re moving faster. Our society is becoming more and more susceptible to change. As a community, we’re growing more fickle with every passing day, using our communal ADHD to pick up new ideas and make them integral to our societal identity very quickly.
The cool part about all this is that our institutions have held up quite well, all things considered. I mean, you still function in sort of the same way you did a decade ago. Your day looks vaguely similar, the people in it have more-or-less the same roles. Considering the fact that my job title didn’t even exist until the Twitter-era rise of APIs, the fact that I can compare it to a mechanic, a job that has existed for almost a century now, is pretty damn good, I’d say.
For all that, though, the shitty part about all this is that our institutions are failing pretty spectacularly in certain areas. That whole “patent/IP” thing, for example. Companies are using patents the way medieval nobles used stones and shovels, building castle walls and moats around their products. If anyone even thinks about competing with them, a lawsuit is catapulted their way before they can even ask about the airspeed velocity of a swallow. I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that this was not how our patent system was designed to be used. And then there’s that whole content-creator thing, to which I will only say “SOPA”, and leave it at that. I’m just going to ignore the whole “education system” thing, because, frankly, it puts me in an apopleptic rage.
I’d like to say “ah, yes, but my generation will fix that. The fine young CEOs and lawmakers I went to college with are almost at the helm of the country, and they shall fix this generational shift that has so unbalanced the country.” And I could just say that, and everything would be hunky-dory, if it weren’t for one tiny little problem: I actually went to school with those people. So I know they aren’t any better, as I said, than my parents are. They didn’t make the shift gracefully, either. Well, that’s a bit odd, isn’t it?
So we’ll just wait for the next generation, right? They’ll fix this. I see two problems with that: first, I take issue with claiming the solution to any problem is to just wait for someone else to fix it, especially when that someone else is your child or grandchild. Second, I know people older than me, people even my parents’ age, who have made the shift wonderfully. Hell, I work for some of them.
So if age isn’t the determining factor to whether or not people can understand this new-fangled world we live in (and I submit that it’s not), what is?
Every middle school child (as far as I know) learns about the benefit that agriculture brought society: it allowed us to specialise. It allowed us to stop having “President of Keeping Him/Her/Itself Alive” as their job title, and switch it to something like “lawyer”. Yes, agriculture is to blame for lawyers.
This specialisation, I think, is at the root of most the modern problems we’re facing. As my parents/peers show, when they can’t even identify the vague requirements my job title carries, we’re getting to the point where we have more jobs that need doing than people can keep track of. That’s not to say there is no need for these jobs: first, that would put me out of a job, which I’m not keen to do; second, even if you have no idea what a Developer Advocate is or what they do, it’s almost impossible that your life has not been impacted by one.
We’re finally getting to the point where we’re specialising faster than our system can adapt. Think about the recording industry: cassette tapes carried the same risk of duplication and piracy that the internet carries, but when was the last time you heard of someone getting sued for making their loved one a mix tape? It was a gradual enough change, and one that occurred when few enough other changes were happening, that it became integrated into our culture. We had some time to adapt to it.
That is why the governments do not get the internet. That is why Google keeps reacting to Facebook and Apple, instead of continuing to kick ass like they did for years. That is why our students are increasingly unprepared for the world they emerge into, cost-prohibitive degree in hand. That is why my father still calls me on the phone so I can Google things for him, even though he has a perfectly good Chromebook set up for his use.
We need to get used to the idea, really let it sink in, that we are not the last innovation, that progress does not stop with us. That one day, we will be the incumbent, and we will be disrupted. Only then can we lay the groundwork for building a society that can adapt to these changes, instead of one that has simply adapted to last year’s changes one year too late.
We are not special. We are specialised. And every day makes us more and more specialised.